Why Most Managers Are Terrible At Spotting Talent

“Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” ~ Tom PetersClick To Tweet

Almost all the leadership literature I’ve read has some version of this quote: that spotting talent is one of, if not the main, objective of leadership. And in particular, spotting leadership talent.

Spottin Talent

Yet everyone I speak to about this topic agrees that almost every leader is bad at it.

  • How many times have you witnessed a manager make a terrible hiring choice that clearly isn’t going to work out?
  • How often have you seen capable individuals leave an organisation because they got tired of waiting for the break they deserved?
  • How frustrated have you been when someone from outside the organisation was brought in for a project you knew you could handle?

This is a pretty sensitive topic, and I’d like to try and tackle it from both sides – what to do if you’re the manager wanting to get better at spotting talent and what to do if you’re the team member being overlooked.

Knowledge-Experience Gap

'While great leaders may be as rare as great runners, great actors, or great painters, everyone has leadership potential, just as everyone has some ability at running, acting, and painting.' - Warren Bennis and Burt NanusClick To Tweet

What is it?

The Knowledge-Experience gap refers to the simple reality that you are in your own head, and nobody else is. You simply can’t know what someone else knows… unless they show you. And let’s face it – there’s a big difference between reading a book about leadership and being a leader. Consequently most people know a lot more than we realise, and we think we know more than we can actually demonstrate… make sense?

Spotting Talent

What can managers do about it?

First, be aware of it. Understand that there are definitely things your team members are capable of doing that they haven’t yet had an opportunity to show you they can do.

Second, deliberately create opportunities for your team members to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Make sure you let them know what you are doing and why – your team members are going to be much more understanding of your shortcomings in this area if they know you are aware of it, and trying to do something about it.

Third, provide feedback afterwards about how the opportunity went from your perspective. Was it a success? Did they let you down? Is there something they should be working on for next time? And importantly, will there be a next time?

What can team members do about it?

First, understand (and have some compassion) that your manager cannot know all the things that every member of his or her team knows, and may be under a great deal of pressure from higher ups to deliver results with no mistakes. Though not ideal, this is not uncommon.

Second, seek out, volunteer for, and create opportunities to demonstrate what you know and gain experience in the relevant area. Understand that you will need to do this on top of your day job – that’s how it works. Ensure your manager knows what you are doing, and invite input and suggestions along the way. For more on creating your own leadership development plan, check out this article.

Third, provide your manager with an honest self-reflection of how you think it went, want you learnt from the experience, and most importantly, what you’d do differently next time. This is also the point where you should invite feedback from your manager – ultimately it is their opinion of how things went that matters most to whether you will get the opportunity you are seeking.


“Winning companies win because they have good leaders who nurture the development of other leaders at all levels of the organization.” — Noel TichyClick To Tweet

What is it?

We might not like to admit it, but managers and leaders are just regular human beings. We have all the same character flaws, foibles and quirks that everyone else does – except ours are on display for everyone to see!

Most managers spend quite a bit of time convinced that they aren’t really qualified for the job, and that they’re about to be found out. It’s called Impostor Syndrome.

Consciously, or even unconsciously, this can make it hard for a manager to admit that they have people in their team who might have more talent or capability than them.

Spotting Talent

What can managers do about it?

First, be aware of this possibility, and have a really honest conversation with yourself about what your role is, and the skills and talents you have that got you to this point.

Second, recognise that you are more likely to progress further if you gain a reputation for identifying high performers – and those same high performers make it easier to get the job done! So it’s a win-win.

Third, read Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, by Sydney Finkelstein. This is a thoroughly researched and well evidenced look at why you shouldn’t be at all concerned if your team members are better than you – just be the best at spotting talent. That’s a fantastic skill all by itself!

That anxiety you have? It’s all in your head!

What can team members do about it?

First, if you are serious about your career, understand that you make progress by adding value to others. Make it your mission to make your boss look good. If they are capable, they will recognise it and be grateful. If they aren’t capable, those around them will recognise what you are doing and try and get you into their team! Everyone wants people around them who make them look good, including you.

Second, realise that great leaders (which you’re aspiring to be) take less than their share of the credit and shoulder more than their share of the blame when it goes wrong. Start ascribing to this philosophy now. Go out of your way to give credit to your boss and peers when things go well. And be the first to accept responsibility for your contribution to things that go wrong.

Third, be kind. The shoe may well be on the other foot at some point in the not too distant future!

Too Busy

What is it?

Well this one is pretty obvious, but it’s all to common. Management roles are big, and tough, and busy. Usually.

If a manager is so busy fulfilling requests and tasks from their own boss, chances are they’re not getting nearly enough time to do the fundamentals of managing well, like setting clear performance expectations and providing useful coaching feedback, let alone making time for spotting talent!

What can managers do about it?

Schedule it. What get’s scheduled (usually) gets done. I say usually because if your own boss is running your diary, then chances are this might get over-scheduled a few times before it actually happens, but you need to have a view about the potential bubbling up in your team… it actually doesn’t take too much time, but it definitely won’t happen if you don’t make it happen!

What can team members do about it?

Lift the load. Find a way to make your boss stop for a minute – acknowledge the pressure he or she is under, and shoulder some additional burden, on the understanding that this is what the time is for. Not necessarily just for spotting talent, but some of those important management tasks that slip down the priority list when urgent things crop up.

Final Thoughts on Spotting Talent

Remember that everyone thinks they are the talent. It’s hard for people who find themselves in management roles to realise it’s no longer all about them, and they have to start thinking about other people! Besides, you might not be as talented as you think, either! So make sure you are building self awareness and working on your own development.

That’s not an excuse though.

It is also plausible that you’re so brilliant that your manager can’t afford to move you… So get started on building your own succession plan!

Oh yeah – talk more. The more open and honest communication occurs between all parties, the less likely it is that anyone is in the dark about aspirations, capabilities and the art of spotting talent.

My new book, More Than This: Your Heroic Quest to Find Inspiration, Intent, Impact and Insight in a Broken World, is exactly what you need to:

  • Clarify and articulate your passion – to find your why
  • Gain the courage and commitment to do something about it
  • Learn and strengthen the skills you need to create massive impact
  • Stay true, analyse your results and gain powerful insights

More Than This

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com now.

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